In April 1945, when the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was surrendered and handed over to the British Army, Canadian forces arrived on scene to provide support, to bear witness, and to document the crimes. They were overwhelmed, understaffed, and left without adequate supplies, equipment, and medicine. Their encounters at the camp were haunting, transformative experiences that forever changed their lives.
In Kingdom of Night, Mark Celinscak reveals the engagement of Canadian troops and other personnel at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The book brings together a series of gripping, often deeply moving accounts that demonstrate the critical relief work carried out by Canadians who have been largely overlooked for more than seventy-five years. It outlines in both stark and moving detail what a cross-section of Canadians both said and did during the liberation efforts at one of the most notorious sites in Hitler’s camp system.
In addition, biographical overviews are presented for each Canadian featured in the book, not only highlighting some of their life-saving and humanitarian work, but also revealing what ultimately became of their lives after the war. Kingdom of Night depicts the gruelling efforts by those who assisted the victims of one of the greatest crimes in history.
Mark Celinscak is the Louis and Frances Blumkin Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Executive Director of the Sam and Frances Fried Holocaust and Genocide Academy at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Source of the above: https://utorontopress.com/9781487532581/kingdom-of-night/
I am a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a horrifying site of abuse, neglect, and death. This book collects eyewitness testimony by our Canadian liberators. When British and Canadian forces first entered the camp in
April 1945, they could not fully understand what they were witnessing.
Near the end of the war, Bergen-Belsen had become terribly overcrowded as prisoners were arriving from other locations across Europe. Josef Kramer, the former commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, oversaw this horrific camp. There was hardly any food or water. Every morning we awoke to see more dead bodies in our barracks. The crematorium was working all the time, but it was not enough. At one point I was tasked with dragging and pulling the corpses into ditches and pits. I remember that we had to take off our belts, put them around the necks of the dead bodies, and pull them into the pits. These are scenes that you cannot adequately describe.
Passing through the gates of Bergen-Belsen was as though life and time were suspended. We thought that it was the end of everything. I was fortunate that I did not get sick and was able to walk around and survive. There are some things that you cannot even remember what happened or how you managed to deal with these problems. A few days before our liberation we could sense that something was coming to an end. The night before our liberation we heard the big cannons and the bombs in the distance. We knew something had happened. We thought our liberators might soon arrive.
I remember the moment when I saw the first British tank coming into Bergen-Belsen. Soldiers were standing on top of it. They were looking around and they did not know where they were or what was happening. The camp was situated in a forest, very deep in the Lüneburger Heide, which is a large woodland area in northern Germany. Our liberators looked at us in shock.
For many of us, thin, weak, and dishevelled, we did not celebrate or smile at our liberation. Many of us were crying. We had already lost so much. Any joy or celebration came later. Liberation was beyond our imagination, and I suppose we simply could not believe what was happening. A day before, we did not think that we would survive or be alive for another day. We must not forget that at the moment of our liberation, at the same hour when British and Canadian forces occupied Bergen-Belsen, people continued to die. Death was all around us even after liberation.
The first personnel who came into the camp were medics. They did not know what they were facing and were not fully prepared. There was no medication. They gave us the wrong food. They were not equipped to do anything. At that point, I believe there were about sixty thousand men and women in the camp. At the same time, there were pits and ditches with thousands of people in mass graves. Our recovery came slowly, and many people did not make it.
After liberation, some of us were transferred over to the German military complex next to the camp. Bergen-Belsen was in such a terrible state that there was a danger of a typhus epidemic. The British decided to evacuate everybody as soon as possible – and burned down many barracks – because it was too dangerous.
After the war I remained in the German military complex until the end of 1949. I stayed in the displaced persons camp where I had a job at the Jewish Agency, where we were mainly busy with educating and preparing people to go to Palestine, which after 1948 became the State of Israel. In 1950 I immigrated to Israel with my wife, whom I had met in Bergen-Belsen. After several years in Israel, I eventually immigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto with my wife and two children.
This book collects the accounts of Canadian liberators and relief personnel. While their hardships were nothing compared to our own, it is important to recognize the challenges they faced in helping us try to survive in the aftermath. These stories will help us remember the terrible crimes that were committed against the Jewish people and many other victims. Let us never allow such crimes to ever occur again.
Joseph Podemski, 1922-2021
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
This is a research done by Clarence Simonsen. It was about a Spitfire pilot. This is Part Six of the research where Gordon McKenzie Hill recounts when he went to Bergen-Belsen.
The Making of a WWII RCAF Spitfire Pilot
P/O Gordon Hill J37340
The move into Germany begins on 11 April 1945, when thirteen squadron Spitfires depart for B.100 Goch, Germany, [76 on map] where they will remain until 14 April.
The ground party moves out on 12 April, and follow the blue line on map. They cross the Rhine River at Wesel, [#57 on map] and proceed to B.108 at Rheine, Germany, where they spent the night.
Gordon was running the Orderly Room while Adjutant Howe was away, and requested to drive the squadron Jeep, so he could take photos of crossing the Rhine into Germany.
Crossing the Rhine [looking south] at Wesel, Germany, blue circle #57 on map.
North bound to Wesel, Germany
On 24 March, the American 9th Army and British Second Army forces swept across the Rhine at this point and the city of Wesel was secured. At the same time airborne troops landed on the German plain north of the Ruhr.
No 416 RCAF ground “A” convoy crossed at the same spot on 12 April 1945. Gordon returned to B.100 Goch and rejoined his flight.
The river banks were still heavily mined by the retreating Germans.
The pilots and thirteen 416 Spitfire fighters flown to B.100 Goch, Germany, on 11 April 1945. Gord flew patrol the next day, attacking buildings, and trains, from 06:48 until 09:16 hours.
Welcome to Germany, flak damage at B.100 Goch, Germany, 13 April 1945
No. 440 RCAF Typhoon at B.100 Goch
Gordon’s April trip to Dusseldorf clearly shows the effects of the Allied bombing campaign.
On 14 April 1945, the Spitfires arrive at B.114 Diepholz, Germany, and Gord records the fighters. It snowed on 21 April, and this image was taken some time later, with still snow on the ground. No. 416 [Lynx] Squadron left B.114 on 26 April and arrived at B.154 Reinsehlen, Germany, where they remained for the next two months.
Gordon with his camera
B.114 Diepholz was a former Luftwaffe base and contained excellent hangars and aircrew living quarters. They only stayed for twelve days and then departed North West 100 miles to B.154.
The ground “A” party left at 8 am 26 April 1945, and the Spitfires left just after 1 pm. The new drome was located 35 miles south east of Hamburg, Germany, near Schnenerdinge, Germany. Twenty miles south was the village of Bergen, Germany.
The fighter pilots were ordered to taxi to the end of the runway, park, and remain beside their aircraft, as the airfield had not been cleared of mines. Around 4 pm the British Army arrived and commenced to clear the area of German mines. By the time the area was secured, ground party “A” arrived and began to unload tents and supplies.
Ground party “B” arrived on 28 April 1945, and found they would be living in tents, and working out doors from their mobile hangar trucks. The Daily Diary made note the billets were not as good as the last ones, they would have to make the best of it.
The mobile aircraft hangar repair shop at B.154 Reinsehlen
The squadron group photo at B.154/ Reinsehlen, Germany, June 1945
Baseball game at B.154
On 2 May 1945, the pilots learned the village of Bergen was just 20 miles south of their location and two miles away was a large concentration camp named “Bergen Belsen.”
Gordon and four other RCAF pilots took the squadron Jeep and drove south to the large concentration camp. Gordon stated – “No amount of words can give a true impression of what we saw, heard, and smelled that horrible day. I still wish I had never gone, and it really bothered me for the next twenty years of my life. Nazi Germany conquered, enslaved, and plundered Europe, but we five pilots had no idea what to expect, and it defied any description, even still today.”
The entrance sign erected by the British Army around 29 April 1945.
Original black and white colorised by Pierre Lagacé
Bremen bombed docks seen from a Canadian Spitfire, 3 May 1945.
F/O Picard and F/O McCallum
On 4 May 1945, F/O G. M. Hill was one of six Spitfires [TB237 – SM200 – SM191 – SM466 – SM470 – and his “S” TD187] attacking German shipping off shore at Eckerrerde Bay. They returned to base at 14:20 hrs. and were informed the war in Europe was over. This was later confirmed by radio at 20:30 hrs that evening.
On 5 May 1945, No. 416 was assigned a special escort of 14 Dakota transport aircraft to Copenhagen, Denmark, and the signing of the German surrender of Northwest Germany. Gordon flew DN-S, serial TD187, and the return trip took 2 hrs. and 25 minutes. The RCAF Spitfires could not land, as they did not have a self starter like the American P-51 fighters, who were also conducting escort of VIPs.
The 492nd Bombardment Group of the American 8th Air Force arrived at North Pickenham, England, on 14 April 1944, and flew a total of 64 missions until 7 August 1944. They were withdrawn from combat on 5 August and assumed special operations at Harrington, replacing the 801st Bomb Group. On the afternoon of 6 May 1945, Col. Robert W. Fish was assigned a secret mission to fly an American C-47 from Harrington, England, to Copenhagen [Kastrup] Denmark. The passengers were members of the Danish Government and two members of the Danish Royal Family. This was for a secret unconditional signing of the German surrender documents, as the Germans Forces had surrendered on 5 May 1945. The V.I.P.s arrived at Harrington on 7 May 1945, and the C-47 took off at 10:00 hrs, stopping for fuel at Eindhoven, Belgium. They were then joined by two American P-51 fighters who escorted the C-47 to the airport at Copenhagen, Denmark. They were cleared to land, and found the airport was still partly in control of the Germans. The V.I.P.s departed and the flight crew were treated to a huge meal by the Danish, then returned to England.
On 7 May 1945, “B” flight, No. 416 Squadron was informed four pilots would be flying escort for a single RAF Mosquito fighter to Copenhagen-Kastrup, Denmark. The Mosquito was transporting a special VIP for the unconditional surrender of North-West Germany, Denmark, and Heligoland. The No. 416 escort pilots selected were – P/O L. E. Spurr, [TD251 “F”] F/O K.J. Williams, [TB905 “K”] F/O R.O. Brouillard, [SM466 “Y”] and F/O Gordon Hill, [TD187 “S”].
These four pilots flew – “The last No. 416 Squadron operation in World War Two.” This special escort took place from 16:05 hrs to 18:25 hrs, 7 May 1945. The special Danish V.I.P. is unknown. F/O Hill had aircraft problems and returned to base, recorded as [D.N.C.O.] Duty Not Carried Out. Gordon is unable to recall the events.
The total number of special escort operations completed by No. 416 Squadron on 7 May 1945.
This image was taken by Canadians at Fleasburg airfield, Denmark, 5 May 1945. The Danes had removed all the propellers and spinners from the German fighters, preventing them from being flown out.
Copy of the final WWII newsletter – ‘WINGTIPS XTRA.”
On 8 May 1945, the war was officially over, and all RCAF ranks had the day off. Gordon, two other pilots, and three ground crew, drove north from Hamburg to an airfield [B.164/Schleswig] south of Flensburg, Germany. They were looking for German aircraft to bring back to the squadron and German guns. They loaded two cases of rum [12 – 16 oz. bottles] and headed off into northern Germany.
The original history by F/O Gordon Hill in his photo album.
The ex-Luftwaffe airfield was now home to a unit of British Marines, and they loudly advised – “No Bloody way you’ll get any guns, let alone any German aircraft.”
While standing on the airfield a German two engine bomber appeared, landed, and the two crew surrendered to the RCAF pilots. Gordon Hill took three photos.
The German pilot [right under engine] stated he came from Norway then Denmark. Possibly Junkers Ju188D-2 from 1. Fernaufklarungsgruppe 122, Kirkenes, Norway. Number on nose appears to be 032.
Standard green camouflage with pale blue-grey over spray, code white H and black letter R.
The Canadians requested lodging for the night, and that evening invited the British Marine Captain in charge, and two of his officers over for a few drinks of rum. The morning of May 9, 1945, the two ground crew returned to base driving the squadron Jeep. The three RCAF pilots each flew off in a German aircraft, loaded with German guns, and Gordon stated – “The remainder of the rum was left with the British Captain for medical use.”
This No. 416 captured Messerschmitt Bf 109, was now joined by three more German aircraft.
This is the original note given to F/O Gordon Hill from the British Marine Captain, to take the two Bücker Bü 181 aircraft, which he identified as Me 108s. It’s amazing the power a bottle of rum has in making a deal. F/O Hill flew one of the captured Bü 181s back to base, and this unofficial flight is not recorded in his log book. The German aircraft [RL-E1] were given the code DN-X and Gordon flew it on 11 May 1945, 6 and 19 June 1945, recorded in his log book.
RCAF Batman LAC Grieve, [left] on right is “Jules” the No. 416 Flemish civilian Batman, who received a ride in the German aircraft Bucker Bü 181 courtesy of pilot “Pic” Picard.
The third captured German aircraft, a Bf 108, was taken by the C.O.
It became the new squadron ‘pet’ as this Messerschmitt Bf 108, was flown by all the squadron pilots, who loved her soft leather seats. F/O Hill flew it one time on 15 May 1945, with F/L Parry, F/L Commerford, and the C.O. S/L Mitchner as passengers. Marked with 127 Wing and the initials of 416 Squadron C.O. S/L J.D. Mitchner used it to fly around bases in Europe and even to England for meetings.
On 30 May 45, F/O Chuck Darrow was flying too low in one of the Bü 181s and hit wires, taking off the tail and made a crash landing. His punishment was one-week Duty Pilot and one-week of Orderly Officer. The second aircraft had her engine destroyed by using 150 octane aviation fuel from the squadron Spitfires.
F/O Gordon Cameron, S/L Jack Mitchner, F/O Picard, and Dove, with war trophies.
Trap-shooting was used to keep fighter pilots eye-sight keen, and for pleasure.
F/L Walter Norman Douglas J2933, age 24, from Halleybury, Ontario, was accidently shot and killed by a shotgun blast. He is buried in the Becklingen War Cemetery at Soltau, Germany. F/O Gordon Hill witnessed this accidental shooting and was confined to barracks until the enquiry was completed. The official statements follow.
Now that the hostilities in Europe have ended, No. 416 is one of four RCAF day fighter units selected to remain in Germany under the British Air Forces of Occupation. They fly to Base 152, Fassberg on 2 July 1945, now under command of No. 83 [Composite] Group, No. 126 [RCAF] Wing.
End of Part Six
Next chapter: Postwar Germany